Sunday, September 23, 2007

And Thus Mount Tessa Becomes Dunghill Tessa

(Hotel Unizo, Kyoto)

Time to bid Osaka adieu. As I was only staying one night on Koya-san, I figured I’d give the baggage forwarding service a whirl. Most of the travel in Japan is via the trains, and the trains themselves don’t have much space for large luggage. Some carriages have compartments down the end for bigger bags, but most only offer overhead rails. To get past this, there is quite an industry of baggage forwarding. You keep an overnight bag with you, while your big luggage goes on ahead to wait for you. It only cost 1270 yen to have my bag forwarded to Kyoto for next day delivery. I appreciate not having to lug it around.

Having checked out train departures before hand, I made sure I got to Namba station with plenty of time to wander around and find the right line. I’m a smart cookie. It took me 15 minutes of walking to get from where I got off to where I needed to be, and I wasn’t lost. The station is just that big.

Unfortunately, being early can only cover so many unexpected delays. There was quite a queue at the ticket window when I arrived, as three little old people and the station staff were deeply involved in something of great complexity. Great, great complexity. The minutes ticked by. I could see my train, just sitting there, waiting, but not waiting for me.

With five minutes to go, I left the line, bought a local ticket from the machine, and sadly bid the limited express adieu. There is only 20 minutes difference in travel time between the local and the express, but I was looking forward to a big cushy chair, I was. Not buying from the ticket window also meant I missed out on a free pass which would have covered transport to and from Osaka, and the buses on Koya-san. Oh well. There’s no planning for little old people.

The trip took just under two hours, the latter part winding through increasingly steep and lush mountains. The carriage was full of a large group, which might possibly have been a photography club. They were toting about all manner of cameras, from old fold up polaroids to giant Nikons with huge lenses and aperture meters. I’m probably sulking in the background of half their carriage photos.

At Gokurakubashi Station we switched to cable car, chugga-chug-chug, up to Koya-san station. All the way out, terrible muzak was playing, as soothingly voices thanked us for choosing to ride the cable car. Choosing to? There isn’t any other way up! The forest all around was full of thin and wide spider webs, and trees that were propped up with tripods.

From Koya-san station, I hopped on the bus to Okuno-in, an enormous grave yard. The second last stop should have put me near my lodging, but the bus stop announcements went funky, and I ended up at the grave yard instead. I didn’t really want to heft my laptop around all day, but I’d done it at Nikko, I could do it again.

Beneath the trees it was cool and very quiet, and the grave markers stretched further than I could see. A Buddhist grave yard, there were monuments erected by corporations – one of the first I saw was a space rocket – and families. I found one dedicated to the Australia, Japanese and Malaysian soldiers who had died in Borneo during the second World War. There were large, majestic buddhas, and little buddhas that consisted of no more than two rocks on top of each other. Most were decked with bibs, some with bibs piled on so high and many that the statues were lost beneath them. Many of the shrines were old and moss-laden, but the majority showed signs of being regularly attended and cleaned.

(space rocket memorial)

(one of the many paths through the graveyard)

(a pile of small stone buddha - probably Jizo, from memory, he who looks over dead children - and donald duck.)

(was quite intrigued by these little markers, actual working doors a child could squeeze through. can't help wondering where they open up to.)

Mosquitos were out in clouds. I even got bitten, once. That indicates that they’ll probably eat the rest of you alive. Mosquitos don’t bite me. I think they sense bad blood, and thus opt to buzz by my ears over and over instead. Said bite didn’t actually do anything. Failure to itch is failure to mosquito.

(prime realestate high density monuments)

(the little buddha, sometimes no more than two stones, were scattered where ever there was space, on an embankment, by the gutter, in tree roots, and all of them were well dressed.)

Unfortunately, I just didn’t enjoy the place. Continual lack of sleep, early mornings, running about and not quite eating or drinking right was starting to wear me down, my shoulders were kicking up a huge fuss from carrying my backpack, a monk snapped at me for taking photos when I hadn’t, I managed to not just break my incense at the Toro-do (Lantern Hall), but burn myself on it, and generally felt that the place didn’t want me there.

Nevermind. Can’t have a happy fun time giddy glow all the time.

I hiked out of Okuno-in (it’s a very large cemetery), and stared at a map trying to find my lodging, only to turn around and find I was standing in front of it. Huzzah! It was the temple Shojoshinin. Most of the temples on the mountain are open to guests. They’re not general accommodation, guests are expected to attend the morning services and eat the temple food. Some temples even require guests to copy out scriptures. Thankfully, Shojoshinin didn’t. My handwriting is bad enough in English.

Despite claims to the contrary, the head monk’s English was very good, and his warmth made me feel much better about myself. Every monk I passed while walking about the temple, whether they were sweeping or wandering about, greeted me with a large smile, and it was such a relief.

My room was on the second floor, a large tatami mat room which had sliding fly-wire doors that looked out onto a beautiful garden. There was a very, very narrow balcony that ran the length of the building. I don’t believe the poms in the next room realised that I could hear every word of their conversation, even the whispers. I tried making some noise, to draw to their attention that if they could hear me, I could hear them, but not luck. It was peaceful there, regardless.

(from my room to the garden)

Feeling better and able to ditch my laptop, I set out again to visit some of the larger temples of note at the other end of town. Buses do run across-wise, but the town is small enough that walking isn’t a problem. I had a comfortable stroll along the main street, checking out stores and feeling slightly overwhelmed by the number of temples present. They out numbered all other buildings, all of them working, lived in and maintained.

Kongobu-ji is the head temple of all the Buddhist temples on the mountain, and where the current abbot resides. It is quite a plain building, but every room contains stunningly-painted screen doors, showing the history of the mountain. There was a set of rooms showing the story of Kobo Daishi, the founder of the mountain and the man generally credited with creating the Japanese alphabet, hiragana. Another set of rooms was painted gold, with the seasons of the mountain intricately depicted in glorious colours (no photos allowed). Admission included a tea service, and I sat by a stone garden with tea and a sweet, and watched people come and go.

(the gate of kongobu-ji, plastered with seals of families, clubs, companies and the like)

(an anti-smoking poster up in the temple foyer. from left to right: As long as you don't look around your feet, the seas of Japan are beautiful. - A portable ashtray in hand. A stranger, but probably a sensible person. - I don't smoke in a crowd...but how many people does it take to make a crowd? - Gentle, moderate or strong, every breeze carries cigarette smoke. - In summertime, the arms that pass near my lit cigarette are bare. - I was looking for shells, but all I could find were cigarette butts. - I carry a 700c fire in my hand with people walking all around me. I've kept this photo full size, so you make study it at your leisure.)

From there I continued on to the Garan, which is a set of large temples and pagodas. It was quiet there, each temple markedly different from the one beside it. I listened to two women chant a sutra outside a closed and red-painted shrine, beneath the cedar trees.

(some of the features of the garan - Kondo (main hall), Koya Shiro (clock bell), and Daito (great tower))

I had intended to check out Daimon as well, the main gate to Koya-san, but I had to be back at Shojoshinin for dinner, and the buses were infrequent.

The bath was Japanese style, and while I was prepared to strip in front of other people, the only other person present wasn’t. She fled the room as soon as I entered. More bath for me! It wasn’t quite hot enough to really work out my shoulders, but it was mighty fine.

Dinner was an elaborate affair. We guests were called down to the first floor, and then led to a sumptuous tatami mat room. The walls and screen doors were painted plain and uninterrupted gold. The alcove at the end of the room was simple and elegant, and the carvings of cranes above it gorgeous.

The food was set out on three lacquer work trays; various soups, tofus, vegetables, tempura and garnishes to go with rice and tea. I’d missed lunch, and face planted into it.

( mouth is watering just revisiting this photo. i see kuromame! black beans cooked and so very sweet and delicious and nom nom nom!)

The other guests with me were British and I think Russian, and seemed quite cautious about every dish they sampled. I was able to identify just about every dish, and ended up explaining most to them.

Their hesitation blind-sided me. I don’t know how you can come to this country, and not go on food adventures at every opportunity. Further, I don’t know how you can book a stay at a temple, and then baulk at the food you know is coming. I know I’m not and have never been a fussy eater, and I’m probably more accustomed to any sort of asian cuisine than they were, but it seemed like such a waste. The fact that these monks eat this food every day, and have done so for centuries, is proof that the damn stuff won’t kill you, and that totally slaughters any excuse you have to be timid.

One dish, the highlight of the meal, was plain white silken tofu, cooked exactly as we do it at home; a block steamed, with soy sauce dumped over the top. This tofu, however, was fucking boss. It was king tofu. The first mouthful was exquisite; the thickest, creamiest tofu I have ever tasted. It was wonderful! It’s that difference of body and taste you get between skinny and full cream milk. I tried to savour it, and go through it slowly, but it was hard.

With the morning service at 6am and my growing backlog of exhaustion, I figured an early night was in order. So early, that I went to bed right after dinner. 7pm hadn’t passed yet.

I didn’t sleep.

Not in an ‘oh, I wasted an evening I could have spend reading or writing,’ but in an ‘oh, FUCKING INSOMNIA MUTHAFUCKA’ sort of way. When my alarm went of at 5:10am, I was already awake. I hadn’t slept. Fuck. FUCK.

I hate myself. I just fucking HATE myself.

I’d prepared for various meltdowns I thought I would likely have while travelling alone on the other side of the world with language difficulties, but I don’t have any way of dealing with insomnia. I mean, I’m doing my usual method: exercise. Every day, I walk for ages. Physical exertion doesn’t seem to be having the slightest effect.

It’s building up. It’s wearing me down, and it’s affecting, I’m letting it affect, my ability to enjoy myself. I’m not going as far or as long as I would. I’m not pushing myself, because I’m tired and cranky and would rather just sit and watch this great alien spectacle of life than explore.

I’m taking two sleeping tablets tonight. Oh yes. Maybe that’ll get me four hours of sleep.

Luckily, the morning service required attendance only, not any form of participation. I didn’t have to think or worry about etiquette, just sit and listen to the chanting of the sutras. And the American woman next to me who insisted on sniffing every couple of seconds. The sutras sounded like one enormous tongue twister, and once both head monk and his female counterpart tripped up. I admire such articulation so early in the morning, every morning.

Breakfast wasn’t as fabulous as dinner, but still full of tasty new things. There was a tofu cake I particularly liked, the rough sort of bean curd with carrot and mushrooms mixed in. Nom nom nom.

Check out wasn’t until 10, so I went and lay down for an hour. No sleep was involved.

Then, the elaborate transport hopping saga again; bus to Koya-san station, cable car to Gokurakubashi station, train to Namba station, train to Osaka station, train to Shin-Osaka station, shinkansen to Kyoto. It’s probably a good thing most of today was spent sitting in airconditioning, considering.

(shinkansen to kyoto. looking at it now, i think australian trains are trapped somewhere in ancient history.)

(yes. you are seeing right. it's a fruit salad and cream sandwich. i wasn't even hungry, but when i saw it, I KNEW IT WAS DESTINY AND I HAD TO EAT IT and yeah, it tasted like fruit salad and cream between two bits of salty bread.)

At Kyoto Station, I explored a bit. To my glee I found Café Du Monde. Yes! Now I can claim to have visited the one in New Orleans, and the one in Kyoto. The bein…I can never remember how to say the word, let alone spell it. You smarchers know what I mean. Those donut things. They’re even more heavily coated with icing sugar here, but much smaller. Like baby cakes.

(for ze nawlins smarchermooters)

(kyoto station has a bit of a far future space port thing going on...)

I had some time to kill before I could check in, so I visited Nishi-Hongan-ji and Higashi-Hongan-ji, the original Buddhist school set up by Tokugawa Ieyasu, and the competitor he founded when he realised the school had enough strength to be a threat to him. The competitor was a fair busy place, and although there were signs asking for quiet in a place of worship, little old people were busy nattering away to each other. In the courtyard was a little old man with a neat and very white beard, feeding a stray black cat. When the cat had enough, it wandered off, and he followed it. It sat down again not far away, and he sat and talked to it while stroking its fur. It got up and wandered back to the first place, and he followed it again, and pet it again.

The original school was surprisingly quiet, and closed up. Oh.

From the station I took the subway, and found my hotel was surprising ease. The map I picked up at the info office is good, much better than the LP maps.

Now, I’m just sitting. I found a theatre that does shows not far from here, and I’m aiming for the 7pm performance. As it’s advertised all over my English language flyers, it will probably be tailored for foreigners, and it is raining quite heavily.

It isn’t like I’d sleep if I had an early night anyway.


  1. Beignets! :D I knew the place was a chain, but wow...

    I -heart- your pictures, you know.

  2. Ooh, beignets! *didn't know about Cafe du Monde being a chain* (Now if only Cafe Beignet was a chain. I remember those beignets being a class above the ones in Cafe du Monde still...)

    "Breathe before you bite!"

  3. great photos. the man with the cat is very murakami.

  4. I stayed at Shojoshinin a couple of years ago. I remember we were served some lovely goma dofu (sesame tofu), which looks like normal tofu and has the same consistency but is made from sesame paste instead of soya beans. Maybe that's what you had?

  5. Cafe Beignet also had that frickin awesome orange juice. I'd kill for another couple glasses of that oj.

  6. BEIGNETS! YES. I was thinking of you guys as I ate them. :D

    Miiru, it's all the camera. I just press the button. Although I can see a difference between my USA photos and my Japan ones - more practice with its temperaments, methinks.

    I saw the man and the cat again, Andrew, the next day. Doing the same thing, heh.

    Walking fool - could well be. I'll have to look it up. I'd love to have a go at making it myself.

    Yeeeeah...I'm thinking of that OJ now too. Damn you!